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A Look Back - Women Build Foundation of the Red Cross

Women Build Foundation of the Red Cross

President and CEO Gail McGovern and Chairman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Clara Barton, Mabel Thorp Boardman, Jane Delano

...the command of a general, the wisdom of a statesman, and the heart of a woman.

During March is American Red Cross Month, we celebrate the women who helped lead the organization from its early inception. While the late 1800s and early 1900s were not a time friendly to women leaders, beginning with Clara Barton, women helped build and define the Red Cross and its mission of compassion that would carry into the 21st century.

Barton Brings a Mission of Humanity to America

Clara Barton became well known during the Civil War, where she earned the title "Angel of the Battlefield" by providing nursing care, medical supplies, food and moral support to the troops.

While recuperating in Europe following her arduous work during the Civil War, she learned about the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross movement. On her return to the United States, she began the process of founding an American Red Cross and campaigned for the ratification of the Geneva Convention protecting the war-injured. Although it took several years, Barton founded an American Red Cross Society, at the age of 60, on May 21, 1881 in Washington, D.C. and by 1882, the United States government ratified the Treaty of Geneva.

During Barton’s 23 year tenure, the organization conducted its first domestic and overseas disaster relief efforts, aided the United States military during the Spanish-American War, and campaigned successfully for the inclusion of peacetime relief work that became known as the American Amendment.

It was said, that Barton had, “the command of a general, the wisdom of a statesman, and the heart of a woman" (Unknown, 1893).

Boardman Builds a National Network

In 1903, Mabel Thorp Boardman was appointed to the Executive Committee of the American Red Cross. Under Boardman’s tenure, the organization established an endowment fund, drew the scattered and independent units of the Red Cross into a network of nationally chartered chapters, and undertook a major expansion of the Red Cross volunteer corps and the number of services they offered to the public. Among the services she initiated were nursing, first aid, water safety, and volunteer opportunities.

At a testimonial gathering in 1944, Harlan F. Stone, Chief Justice of the United States praised Mabel’s devotion to the Red Cross, stating that “her life has been literally dedicated to a single aim – the development of the Red Cross until it should be what it has become, the greatest and most efficient weapon against human misfortune which the world has known.”

Boardman’s success in achieving a strong, national Red Cross was due largely to her determination that volunteers should be kept “at the ready” nationwide to provide Red Cross services when needed.

Delano Creates a Nursing Legacy

In 1909, Jane Delano, joined the Red Cross and came to be a leading pioneer of the modern nursing profession, almost single-handedly creating American Red Cross Nursing. Through her efforts as the first chairman of the National Committee on Red Cross Nursing, the image of the Red Cross nurse became a vital national symbol.

As a result of her recruiting efforts, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, there were more than 8,000 registered nurses immediately available for duty. By the time of the armistice in November 1918, more than 20,000 Red Cross nurses had volunteered to serve at home and overseas.

Her colleague Ruth Morgan stated, “(S)he was pre-eminently a great leader. To be calm, when others were distracted, to be sure, when others were uncertain, to be brave, when most of us would have been timid, and above all, to be generous, when most of us would have been selfish, was her practice.”

Today, President and CEO Gail McGovern and Chairman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter carry forward this precedent of women leadership as the Red Cross continues to deliver its humanitarian mission across the country and around the world.

Learn more about Red Cross history.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.